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Origins: Exploring The Journey Of Discovery With Mary Pattillo

Story originally appeared in Northwestern Research News

Mary Pattillo’s groundbreaking scholarship on the black middle class has made her a celebrated thought leader in her field.

Two of her books, Black Picket Fences (2nd ed. 2013) and Black on the Block (2007), are seminal explorations of race and class focused through the lens of South Side Chicago neighborhoods, including North Kenwood-Oakland (NKO), a “self-consciously black community.” NKO underwent rapid gentrification in the late 1980s when its residents tackled crime and poverty through urban renewal. The role of black professionals in advancing such change was little studied, though, one reason why Pattillo took on the research challenge.

"The black middle class and their residential enclaves are nearly invisible to the nonblack public because of the intense (and mostly negative) attention given to poor urban ghettos,” writes Pattillo, sociology and African American studies, in Black Picket Fences.

Countering this perception, Pattillo provides a richly nuanced picture of community life that transcends monolithic depictions of the black experience. While blacks may share some broad affiliations — such as membership in the Democratic party — they hold disparate views on jobs, schools, housing, and economic development. On these subjects, “the black position becomes many positions, split along lines of seniority in the neighborhood, profession, home ownership, age, and taste,” Pattillo has said.

Pattillo’s scholarship draws upon her own experiences as an NKO resident; she moved into the neighborhood in 1998 and has lived there since. Her early life growing up in Milwaukee, perennially one of America’s most racially segregated cities, also shaped her research interests. In fact, though Pattillo was an urban studies major at Columbia University and earned her doctorate at the University of Chicago, working with renowned sociologist William Julius Wilson, she considers her career to have started much earlier.

“I often say that we sociologists have long been sociologists,” she says. “I think I was a sociologist back in high school, when I was bused from the 

city to Whitefish Bay, a suburb that we jokingly called ‘White Folks Bay.’”

Since 1998, Pattillo has been a Northwestern faculty member. She has been chair of the Departments of Sociology and African American

Studies and she holds the Harold Washington Professorship of Sociology and African American Studies.

Research News spoke with Pattillo about her work.

What early influences encouraged you to explore the social sciences?

Mary Pattillo: I’m an urban sociologist and a sociologist of race and ethnicity. High school was definitely a turning point for me and oriented me towards this career. I lived in an all-black neighborhood and went to an all-black elementary school. For high school, I first attended a pretty elite private school and then hated that so much that I became part of a desegregation program that bussed kids to the suburbs from Milwaukee, which was and remains among America’s most segregated cities.

What was that experience like?

MP: Structurally, desegregation did not lead to integration because the school day’s organization made integration impossible. All the black students and a couple of Latino kids came in on the city bus every morning. The school had an open campus so students could go home for lunch. But we weren’t able to go home like everyone else who lived in the neighborhood. We were stuck on campus with some vending machines. After school, we couldn’t participate in extracurricular activities because we had to get home on the bus.

Did the suburbs seem dramatically different from your home in the city?

MP: I saw clear inequalities. I come from a very highly educated family: My father is a doctor and my mother has a master’s degree in mathematics. So it wasn’t that my family was poor — though my parents were frugal — but my neighborhood was lower middle class, while the suburb was much more upper income. That experience definitely got me interested in what I study today.

Your research on the black middle class has advanced discourse on an under-explored demographic. What attracted you to the subject?

MP: At Columbia University, I met black folks who grew up in the suburbs and in white neighborhoods and I thought, “Really? Black people live in the suburbs?” It was a revelation that made me aware of class diversity within the black community, which was something I wanted to study. A lot of the sociological literature then was focused on poor blacks, and I felt that this was a narrow view. My own experience, and the experiences of others I knew, was absent from that depiction.

What role do black professionals play in the communities you’ve studied?

MP: It’s often complex. The black middle class can exacerbate or mitigate inequalities. In Black on the Block, for example, I present the case for and against public housing. Black professionals moving into the neighborhood argued that the community was overburdened with public housing and that this concentration of poverty leads to bad outcomes, including lower wealth for black homeowners. Their idea was to spread public housing more evenly across the city.

They argue that black homeowners and neighborhoods would be better off. But in making that argument, these professionals were planning to displace poor black people who had lived in this community for generations — doing so just at a moment when the neighborhood itself was improving and when these families might benefit from the improvements. So you see this tension. Their logic was not to protect the interests of poor black folks, but to protect the interests of the black community overall, which was assumed to be monolithic.

Discussion of school choice, like housing, creates similar tensions. Proponents of choice argue that an educational “marketplace” spurs competition and systemic improvements. What does your research show?

MP: We must recognize that choice is often a burden for many people from disadvantaged families. People want good schools for their kids. But the choice process requires, for instance, taking the bus to four different open houses, and taking time off from work to attend those events. It means having access to the Internet to do the research on schools. It means understanding many different application processes and deadlines and making sure your child takes the test for the selective enrolment schools. For parents who are barely making ends meet, or who are working multiple jobs with limited flexibility, or caring for sick family members, school choice burden adds another responsibility to their full plates.

How can we improve the process?

MP: There are efforts to make the process easier; standardizing application deadlines, getting more information to these families. But no matter how much easier we make it, there will always be inequalities in parents’ abilities to navigate the system because of time or money. So the only way to really address educational inequality is to have high-quality schools that don’t require any choice, which is the neighborhood school model. You wake up on September 6 and roll your kid out of bed and roll them into school — and that school is a good school. That’s a different model than a choice model.

What’s the question you’ve not yet answered that means the most to you?

MP: “Why are Americans so hard-hearted when it comes to disadvantaged people?” Even disadvantaged Americans are hard-hearted when it comes to other disadvantaged Americans. What would it take to convince people to create a sense of collective responsibility for each other?

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